Bigger and Badder than Bermuda
By Chris Museler
Before heading south in early April in the Class 40 Dragon on the non-stop delivery from Mystic, Ct., to Charleston, S.C., the longest I’d sailed doublehanded in one go was 70 miles (though I have done several New England Solo/Twin races). The 800 miles on the delivery is 165 miles longer than the Newport Bermuda Race we were preparing for. We’d had just one day of practice, but I was sailing with Rob Windsor, a professional Class 40 skipper and experienced “preparteur.”
We left Mystic on April 2 after waiting out a cold front and glided for two days under sunny skies under a large Code 5 headsail on a furler tacked to the end of the sprit. Watches were four hours on during the day and two on at night. That’s the usual routine, except that when you’re on watch in a doublehander, you’re solo. I guess I hadn’t thought it through, but soon enough I realized that when I was on deck, I was completely in charge of reefing, changing sail, changing tacks, moving ballast, feeding myself, and generally keeping me alert and the boat moving as fast as possible in the right direction. I was on my own. Because he’s your only backup, your co-skipper’s rest is crucial.
On the third day, after being warmed by visits by curious dolphins and a bright sun, we hit 25-30 knot headwinds off Hatteras that didn’t abate until we were 200-plus miles due east of Charleston. The Gulf Stream there was running between 3 and 4 knots, mostly against us, so we tried to stay as far offshore as possible.
These wide, flat-bottomed boats do NOT like upwind work. Each wave feels and sounds like a car crash. I slept on the cabin sole on a bean bag and was airborne regularly. To top it off, all the bucking forced diesel out of the tank vents and we wound up with fuel on the floor and me with a serious bout of mal de mer. We plugged the vents, noting that they’d have to be opened when we started the engine.
There were other issues, and Rob’s response impressed me with the preparation and skill of Class 40 sailors. When we lost the autopilot half-way down, he replaced the entire drive unit with the spare. When the computer failed, he produced a hand-held, waterproof backup tablet with its own GPS and our Expedition software already loaded to carry us all the way to the Charleston City Marina. The only breakage he couldn’t fix was the hold-down line for the hydro generator that supplied our energy. Without it, we had to run the engine once a day, and the two new gel cell batteries were not charging well.
Besides being auto-tacked twice by our very important friend we call “the Pilot” (the autopilot) my most poignant lesson was deciding when and how to run from a squall. I was reading a book while bopping along at 8 knots upwind when I saw a black sky ahead. I read some more, casually tucked in a reef, and by the time I had my harness clipped in, the first gust of 30 hit with some rain. I cracked the sails a bit and took over steering from the Pilot. In three minutes it was blowing 35-40 with white-out rain.
Our rolled-up Code 5 on the sprit was shaking so badly that Rob woke up and stuck his head out the companionway. “Looks like we have a bit of a squall,” he said casually, scratching his head. When I asked at what point we should take down the Code 5 before the roller-furler gave way, Rob said, “It’s no fun taking in a loose Code 5 in 40 knots.” So I popped the main sheet out of its self-tailing winch and peeled off, like rounding a weather mark in big breeze in a Laser. We were immediately doing around 18 knots and I ran for five minutes until the breeze dropped to 25 and brought the boat back to course.
Feeling comfortable in a big breeze in the ocean is one thing. Making decisions and then implementing them entirely on your own is something else. These boats are dinghies and get tossed around as such. They feel like a trapeze boat at high speed, with the associated feeling that you may well capsize at any moment. The gods shined on us and we ended the trip with a full day of beam reaching in 25-35 knots with a 3-5 meter swell, occasionally hitting 20-plus knots.
We pulled into Charleston at night, slept for a few hours, unrigged the boat, and updated the omni-present check list. We were parked next to Campagne, Miranda Merron’s Class 40, one of the 12 competitors in the Atlantic Cup. They are a calm group and very supportive of each other.
Looking back on the delivery from Mystic, I see that it has provided an experience longer and possibly more challenging than either the Atlantic Cup or the Bermuda Race. And I’m better for it. I’ll report back about preparing Dragon and myself, including non-destructive keel testing, safety checks, my experiences at a US SAILING Safety at Sea Seminar, and tips from my skipper, Rob Windsor, that may help any sailor, anywhere.